The Movie Guru: A look at the resurgence of horror movies
In horror movies, it’s not really the monsters (or ghosts, zombies or homicidal maniacs) that we’re afraid of.
According to various experts, horror movies reflect the collective societal unease of the audiences watching them. Just after World War II, monster movies reflected people’s fears of attack from distant, powerful countries. In the 1970s, “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” spoke to the idea that society might be on the brink of collapse. As for now … well, I could write an entire column on why people are uneasy about the world today.
One thing that’s true about all these time periods, though, is that people watched a lot more horror movies. On the surface, it seems like a strange connection. If people are feeling scared about the real world, why would they want to see things that made them even more scared? Aren’t they already nervous enough?
The short answer is yes, but that’s the entire point. Horror movies can make us scared, but they also confront us with fears we already have. It’s a shortcut they use to freak people out more effectively, relying on our own subconscious minds to do a lot of the work for them.
When fear is more complicated than evil clowns, however, it can also be a huge help. We don’t like to talk about the things we’re scared of, but we can watch the couple in “A Quiet Place” be terrified that they can’t protect their kids in an incredibly dangerous world. We can see the mother in “Hereditary” increasingly doubt her own instincts about what is and isn’t safe. We can watch the poor hero in “Get Out” trapped by the danger that can hide beneath smiling faces.
When we watch the characters in a movie wrestling with something frightening, it helps us come to terms with the fears we’re feeling. This is especially true if they wrap it up in safely fictional packaging, like the aliens in “A Quiet Place,” the incorporeal demon in “Hereditary,” or the brain stealing in “Get Out.” That way, we get to process what we’re afraid of without actually having to look directly at whatever it is.
Sometimes, horror movies give us even more than that. When the lead character fights whatever evil person or thing is chasing them, we fight right alongside them. When they win, we win over our own fears for a single wonderful moment.
Even when they lose, however, there’s value in watching the worst possible endings onscreen. Because in a movie, all of the horrible things that happen are safely in the movie. The serial killer, demonic entity or homicidal ghost can win, all of the characters can die, and you still get to go home at the end. You might have been terrified, but you survived it.
Maybe, if you’re lucky, it’ll convince your subconscious that you can survive all those other things you’re afraid of. Because, like any true horror fan knows, there are far worse things in the world then a scary sewer clown.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.